For much of the summer, it looked like one of Ryan Pulock or Scott Mayfield had a clear path to making the New York Islanders roster to open 2015-16.
Then, like a very, very, very light and decaffeinated Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk training camp bomb, a new face arrived to push them back down the depth chart. Training camp signing Marek Zidlicky is the right-shooting (and not as good, nor as amusing) version of Lubomir Visnovsky: Smart, good for the power play, but old and more susceptible to injury.
Health willing, Zidlicky's signing means opening night now looks like this:
Zidlicky gets the lead at completing the Islanders top six on defense, with Brian Strait the incumbent 7th man to sit in the pressbox and then enrage fans when he's put into the lineup for someone suffering an undisclosed injury. It also means Pulock and Mayfield will likely have to wait a little longer to become regulars, but history tells us it will happen. Injuries will come. The spaces will open.
All of which is according to plan. The Islanders tend not to go into the season counting on a 20-something taking a top-six spot from the get-go. (Even Travis Hamonic began his first NHL season in Bridgeport before injuries opened the way.)
They also, more and more over the years, have made their prospects wait a little too long rather than enter a little too soon.
Whether the Nino Niederreiter saga was more due to his high, unachievable-bonus-laden ELC being a necessary cap mule during the lean years, or to his agent's history of insisting on unreasonable things -- both are plausible, and likely factors -- the outcome remains the same: Now with more than a cap floor budget as well as the depth that buys, the Islanders will never repeat that mistake again.
On the contrary, they are fully in Red Wings-style, "over-ripen your prospects" mode. Brock Nelson paid his share of Bridgeport dues. Ryan Strome more than paid his share. Anders Lee had to earn it, and earn it again. Matt Donovan had -- well, nevermind that one.
Pulock brings the offense and vision that reminds John Tavares of Shea Weber. Mayfield brings snarl. But at age 20 and 22, respectively, both won't be hurt by some more top-role minutes-logging in the AHL. And of course, they have the waiver exemption which always makes this the more likely route when navigating the 23-man roster.
But NHL bluelines are scenes for carnage. Injuries force reliance on depth -- and waiver-exempt youngsters -- throughout the regular season. The Isles began last spring's playoffs without Travis Hamonic and finished it with both Mayfield and Griffin Reinhart seeing action due to injuries. Brian Strait ended Wednesday's preseason game limping.
As Mayfield was quoted in a Newsday story on these two:
"It's not like my career here is over if I get sent down," Mayfield said. "If I put out the effort I know I can, I think I'll get my chance."
Barring a few more injuries, it won't be on opening night. But it's coming.